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School As Usual?

With August right around the corner, I’m heartened by what education decision makers are saying regarding the looming question: should we re-open schools for in-person learning? From my vantage point, it appears that the majority of these folks are relying on scientific indicators in the wake of our current pandemic, with an eye on the safety of their school communities, effectively ignoring the demands from Washington D.C and other entities that appear to prioritize economic recovery over the safety of our children and their teachers.

It appears that among the states and local school districts that are contemplating a brick and mortar experience this fall, a vast majority of them are seeing a 100% return to “school as usual” as unrealistic. It looks like they are leaning toward one of two options: distance learning only or a hybrid model that brings small groups of students to campuses a couple of days a week with the balance of their learning occurring at the kitchen table with technology.

Despite the good intentions of teachers and district leaders, distance learning was, in many cases and for many children, just short of a disaster. There were many reasons for this outcome. Among them, systems were unprepared. It was an abrupt move, like the flip of a switch, to close schools and embrace distance learning. The problem was, and continues to be, that distance learning requires a significant amount of preparation and training to be executed effectively. It’s not as simple as logging into a Zoom session. And, unlike our traditional classroom approaches that rely on the direct interaction of students and their teacher, our distance learning experiment required the able and willing partnership of a whole other cadre, one that was sadly and woefully unprepared for what would be expected of them: parents.

And then there’s the issue of equity. What about the children in single parent households where the parent is an essential worker and is not physically present to supervise and support their child’s on-line learning? What about the approximately 1.5 million children who are identified as homeless in this country? What about the students who just fail to show up? The July 26, 2020 edition of Education Week cited 2019 research conducted at Georgia State University. A random-assignment study in four districts was used to see whether personalized “nudges” sent by email and text messages through districts’ communications systems to parents could improve attendance among students at risk of chronic absenteeism. The nudges did have some positive effect. But, sadly, “only 55 percent of grade K-8 students’ parents in the study, and 49 percent of grade 9-12 students’ parents, actually had a valid email or number where they could receive texts, and those students with the most absences tended to have parents who were the hardest to reach.” Could it be that some students fail to “show up’ because they lack access to the very technological resources that distance learning relies on? Unfortunately the answer is “yes.” The results of various studies conducted during the coronavirus pandemic suggest that between 20% of K-12 students, and in some places as high as 33%, disappeared. They didn’t log on. They didn’t respond. They were unreachable.

One-third of our nation’s kids lost? That is a problem that is unacceptable.

I’m not casting any blame or shame in these observations. Everybody did their best. People came together in a climate of uncertainty and shared pain, put their shoulder to the wheel and tried. With mixed results. Despite the best efforts, it wasn’t enough for too many kids across the country. And, I am just cynical enough to think that doing it again this fall won’t prove to be measurably better, whether full time or a component of a hybrid model. Yes, many systems have taken the gift of time, particularly during the months of summer, to build foundations of readiness and preparation, conducted trainings for teachers, explored alternative platforms and made sure their infrastructure could manage the load. So, maybe it might be a little better. But, it will still fall way short of the education kids deserve.

Should we be expanding our options to address this?

Let me be abundantly clear. I fully support the goal of having all students return to full time in-person learning. The benefits of that experience are innumerable and well known. The sooner that can be done, the better. So long as it is done when we can assure kids, parents, teachers, office staff, custodians and cafeteria workers that it is absolutely safe. Until then, we must continue to explore alternatives to effectively move students forward in their educational trajectory while keeping them safe.

I am really troubled by the statistic I just wrote about, that between 20-33% of students were incognito this spring when the switch was made to full-time distance learning. There may be an additional reason for this beyond what I described. What if some kids simply vanished into the sanctity of their bedrooms and their own agendas? In other words, what if some of these students struggle with an experience they find impersonal, and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) muster the energy to make it relevant? Stated simply, maybe they weren’t motivated.

Here’s an option to consider.

During the 1970’s, educator and author John Holt recognized that many of the students in his experience did not appear to be motivated by a love of learning or the satisfaction of an innate need. Rather, he observed that what may have appeared to be motivation was actually compliance driven by a fear of failure and the criticism that would result from it. He also observed that the boundless curiosity displayed by pre-school age children was gradually, and significantly, diminished once they entered elementary school and made their way up through the system. These observations led him to develop an educational approach that he labelled “unschooling.” Unschooling is based on a philosophical belief that learning is not a discreet event. Rather, it is a natural process that takes place continually. Over the course of his career, his writings on unschooling have served as inspiration for many in examining the current state of America’s public schools. His work also highlights the critical role of curiosity in kids’ learning.

Fast forward fifty years.

I have done a lot of thinking and writing on the topic of curiosity. In fact, a significant portion of my 2018 book, The Education Kids Deserve, focuses on the curiosity of children and the sad confirmation of Mr. Holt’s observation. In our standardized system, one where seemingly “one size fits all,” there is little room for students to explore what interests them or even be allowed to follow a whim. The content is so prescribed and the instruction is so lock-step, that the curious pondering of kids is set aside and soon forgotten. Yet, our failure to capitalize on the innate curiosity of children, and building instructional experiences around their curiosity, is an act of squandering tremendous opportunity.

Perhaps we should give curiosity a try. Admittedly, our system is in a forced period of “pause.” Instead of trying to replicate the material and pacing of traditional classroom instruction while seated at the kitchen table, let’s flip the scenario. What if we allowed kids to shape their own education, following their interests? That’s really at the heart of Holt’s “unschooling” idea. Instead of making learning the business of the school, let’s make learning the business of kids. Imagine!

Tyshia Ingram, a Vox contributor and mother of three, offered the following insights on unschooling in her home during this pandemic in a piece published July 20, 2020.

“For us, it’s (unschooling) an opportunity to release expectations and observe what learning looks like naturally for our youngest son, age 7. For our middle child, age 11, the driver is independence: the ability to choose which projects to pursue, books to read, and even languages to study. And for our eldest, 15, who was attending traditional school before the pandemic, our decision to unschool this coming fall will allow him space to dive deep into the subjects he’s most passionate about.

Our days typically look like a mix of scheduled activities, some guidance or instructional assistance if needed, and a dedicated amount of time for exploration or personal projects. We have some expectations, such as using technology to support a project or interest rather than endless scrolling, or setting goals that we regularly check-in on, agreed upon together as a family. . . A tool we picked up from our unschool community is the use of contracts to outline those expectations and requests. We use them for everything from resolving conflicts to requests to use certain tools and resources (this can help with ensuring healthy use of the internet).

There’s daily reading, their pick — for one that’s an audiobook, another a comic. They may have a virtual class in the morning, something they may request on their own or something we noticed they were naturally drawn to. They each have projects or interests they’re actively pursuing, so in the afternoon they could be doing that on their own or with our assistance.”

Doesn’t that sound less stressful than the pressure of trying to replicate school in the dining room? Do you imagine that life in this household may be a bit less stretched and crazy? (She says it is.)

Most important, are these children learning? Absolutely! They are learning about what interests them. They are actively engaged in discovery and problem solving. These children have been given license to chase after their curiosity and to apply their creativity to tasks and projects that they care about. And, over time, these three fortunate kids will synthesize what they are learning and apply it to their lives in meaningful ways.

These kids are safe.

These kids are happy!

These kids are engaged in learning that I think a lot of other kids would be eager to show up for.

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